The US Air Force has launched a successful test flight for an unmanned jet directed by AI and machine learning (ML).
The test flight involved the XQ-58A Valkyrie, an experimental unmanned stealth plane designed primarily for scouting and reconnaissance. The Air Force is discussing an ambitious plan of combining human-manned and AI-controlled planes in the same squadrons.
A new era of AI aircraft
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) announced that the XQ-58A Valkyrie successfully flew a three-hour sortie in late July. The aircraft was guided by AI and machine-learning systems created by the AFRL.
Although some details were kept under wraps, the laboratory stated that the plane demonstrated an impressive ability to process the information necessary to accomplish the mission. The Air Force intends to expand its fleet of high-tech autonomous aircraft.
Col. Tucker Hamilton, the Air Force’s AI test and operations chief, said, “The mission proved out a multi-layer safety framework on an AI/ML-flown uncrewed aircraft and demonstrated an AI/ML agent solving a tactically relevant ‘challenge problem’ during airborne operations.”
He further elaborated, “This sortie officially enables the ability to develop AI/ML agents that will execute modern air-to-air and air-to-surface skills that are immediately transferrable to other autonomy programs.”
The test flight advances the Air Force’s collaborative combat aircraft (CCA) strategy, which seeks to combine autonomous and human-manned aircraft.
In a speech earlier this year, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall revealed his intention to deploy at least 1,000 CCAs once fully operational.
He stated, “CCAs will dramatically improve the performance of our crewed aircraft and significantly reduce the risks our pilots face.”
Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, AFRL commander, underscored the increasing role of AI in warfare, stating, “AI will be a critical element to future warfighting and the speed at which we’re going to have to understand the operational picture and make decisions.”
He also highlighted the rapid evolution of “AI, autonomous operations, and human-machine teaming” and emphasized the need for coordination among government, academia, and industry to keep pace.
The future of AI aircraft
The Air Force’s budget includes a request for $490 million for the CCA program. The plan would “allow our Air Force to maintain effective deterrence and control the skies.”
“By accelerating development of CCAs, the Air Force will be able to augment current and future platforms with lower-cost complementary systems that increase lethality and exchange ratios in highly contested environments.”
The Air Force also highlights the AI-powered XQ-58A provides an economical alternative to manned aircraft, being “built at a cost that permits it to be a combat loss.”
The US Air Force had previously explained how reports of an AI drone ‘turning on its operators’ had been misinterpreted.
Instead, this was a ‘thought experiment’ used to explain how AI-powered technology could misinterpret missions and deem operators as an obstruction to achieving end goals.
The XQ-58A isn’t strictly designed as a combat aircraft but has a weapons enclosure typically used to deploy an Altius-600 unmanned aircraft system, a drone designed to house different types of warheads.
AI-powered weaponry has become a hot topic, with the Palantir CEO recently saying the US should develop more AI weapons despite mounting concerns.